Herald JournalHerald Journal, Sept. 6, 2004

A message of hope delivered in prison

By Jenni Sebora

“The greatest hope for an inmate to avoid the revolving doors of prison is to undergo a religious conversion during his incarceration,” noted Dr. Peter Legins, professor at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Gordon Houk and Dean Aldrich, both of Lester Prairie, who are both involved in jail ministry, would probably agree with this statement.

“It is the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done in my life. I pray for each one individually and make an individual prayer list with each person. It gives them hope. The power of prayer can change lives,” Houk said.

Aldrich has watched inmates change their lives and be very appreciative of what the jail ministries has done for them.

There was a gang member that after attending a jail ministry session, confessed to a murder, Aldrich said.

“He received 25 years in prison, but the inmate’s mother was very thankful and sent a letter of appreciation to us conveying that her son had given his life to the Lord and is doing fine in prison,” Aldrich said.

Houk recalled a positive impact the ministry had on one woman inmate. After the woman was released from jail, she became a manager of a fast food restaurant and is doing personal testimonies of her life change to different organizations.

“God really touches people. Fully grown men are crying and weeping. The guards also convey that they see changes in the inmates,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich recently received a six-page letter from the Carver County jail that was addressed to his ministry partners and him. The letter was from an inmate who was released from jail and wanted to thank them for making him feel valued when no one else did, Aldrich said.

“This is awesome to see. It is neat to see God work. We get blessed as much as they do,” Aldrich said.

“The commission of Christ is to help those in need, including those in prison,” Houk said.

Houk has been working with the Gideons International for approximately nine years, since shortly after his wife passed away, he said.

Gideons International is an organization of Christian laymen who associate for the purpose of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gideons practice evangelism via personal testimony and especially, by producing and distributing Bibles.

Jail ministry is part of the Gideons’ evangelism and Houk began in jail ministry shortly after becoming a Gideon.

He travels to the McLeod County jail approximately once a month, on Sunday evenings. There are three other Gideons members that rotate with him to provide ministry to the inmates there, Houk said.

Each session lasts approximately one hour, and Houk may lead two or three sessions each evening.

“The maximum number of people who can attend a Bible study is six people. There are also limitations as to who can be together. Certain inmates cannot be with other inmates,” Houk said.

Houk has evangelized to as many as 18 inmates in an evening. The jail holds 38.

The jail inmates come voluntarily to the Bible studies. This holds true for Aldrich’s ministry as well, but there are differences in their ministries.

On Saturday evenings for the past four years, Aldrich has traveled to the Carver County jail to minister to inmates. Unlike Houk who ministers solo, Aldrich usually uses a team approach with a friend and his wife, who live in Carver County.

“The three of us work well as a ministry team. We all have different things to offer and give testimony to,” Aldrich said.

A criminal background check and an orientation entailing what they can and cannot do were required before either man could begin his volunteer work.

“You cannot ask them (the prisoners) why they are in jail, but they can volunteer this information,” Aldrich said.

In the meeting room where Aldrich conducts his Bible sessions, there are a number of panic/duress buttons to be used if guards are needed. Aldrich has never had to use a button and has never really felt threatened by any inmate, he said.

Houk’s experiences are similar. He has never really felt threatened either, but he has had to have one woman inmate escorted out because she was wandering around and wanted to leave, probably due to a mental illness she was dealing with, Houk said.

A Saturday evening jail ministry for Aldrich usually lasts for two hours, with approximately five to 15 inmates attending. In his ministry sessions, he has had as many as 25 inmates attend, and as few as only one attend. There are no limits as to the number that can attend Aldrich’s Bible study session, he said.

The audience for both men’s ministries is usually male, mainly because the population they are working with is made up of more males, ages 18 and up. Houk has worked with someone as young as 16.

They may see a jail inmate once, or on a regular basis, up to a year.

“There are also repeat offenders who attend, and there are some inmates we get to know quite well,” Houk said.

Because Houk’s ministry is part of the Gideons International evangelism, he uses Campus Crusade for Christ curriculum, and Bibles in both English and Spanish are available for the inmates to have at each Bible study.

Aldrich and his ministry team do not use a set curriculum.

“We purposely do things differently than other groups that minister to the jails. We usually start out with worship tapes, and we try to use fairly progressive, fun, up-beat, rock-n-roll type Christian music,” Aldrich said.

“We want to show them (the inmates) that Christianity is not about being stuffy, or God taking away our fun, but that Christianity is about a relationship with a true and living God, and not about man-made rules or what’s religiously acceptable,” Aldrich said.

In Aldrich’s jail ministry, they don’t preach to the inmates, but work with them. They circle the chairs and have open discussions with the inmates, Aldrich explained.

“We do discuss personal struggles. You can’t deny personal testimony,” Aldrich said.

“After the music and discussion, we go into some type of a message or Bible study. It’s important to give simple, practical messages that the inmates can apply to their own lives,” Aldrich said.

Many inmates do discuss among themselves and with Houk the reasons they are in jail, and most are willing to pay their dues, Houk said.

“I do try and steer away from discussing individual cases and not make it a “gripe the system” session. We want the discussion to be healthy,” Houk said.

Whatever the reasons the inmates are jailed, both Houk and Aldrich agree that the inmates are desperate for change, and they just don’t know how to do it.

Drugs are a major part of many of the inmates’ lives, Houk said.

“They appreciate the fact that they can’t do drugs in jail, but are scared that when they get out, they will go back to that lifestyle,” Houk said.

“We try and point them in the right direction and to give God a try. We let them know that God is a God of love, and that we all sin. Many have never been to church or a Bible study,” Aldrich said.

Both men also believe that they see a different side of the inmates and may know them differently than what others may read about them in the newspapers.

“There is some good in everyone. There are good people doing bad things,” Houk said.

The inmates’ time in jail not only affects the inmates’ lives, but the lives of their children and families, as well.

Houk recalls one inmate sharing with him that his girlfriend and children were living in a trailer house in a nearby community and had no heat, food, or electricity, and the girlfriend was spending the money that she did have on drugs. The inmate felt helpless because there was nothing that he could do because he was in jail.

Houk called a pastor that he knew in that community and was able to get some help to the inmate’s family.

Aldrich and Houk said that they try to do some follow-up with the inmates, if possible, once they are out of jail.

“We sometimes make phone calls to the friends and family members of the inmates’ once they are released,” Houk said.

Making connections to churches for the inmates is also important, Aldrich said.

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